How to write a school play – an example from the late 1500s

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

In the Times Literary Supplement of July 1st Shakespeare Institute lecturer Martin Wiggins reports that the Elizabethan Club of Yale University has recently acquired the manuscript of Oedipus – a play for schoolchildren written in the late 16th century (the best estimate is sometime between 1596 and 1603).

There a many similarities with the sketches and plays we see school English departments performing today, and some major differences too.

First and foremost Oedipus was designed to give the students practice in public speaking, which is still surely one of the main aims.

The play is written in verse, which we’d like to see more of in ELT quite frankly. OK we’re not going to have KET and PET students memorising iambic heptameter but the occasional rhyme would add a bit more fun to these things. The script also includes a number of songs, which are good because they let the whole group perform together and they allow students with different talents to take centre stage. The Henry Brothers would add dancing, acrobatics, juggling and magic tricks to the mixture as well.

Each of the boys (and they were all boys back then) had a speaking part, and there is flexibility in the script to add even more roles, in this case more soldiers going off to fight the Sphinx. Without doubt giving all your students a chance to speak is admirable but be careful: the final manuscript of Oedipus has 36 roles and takes over three hours just to read through.

The text was basically stolen from other plays, mainly an English translation of Seneca’s Oedipus, but that only has nine speaking parts so a lot more had to be added: a section lifted wholly from another Seneca play, the story of Oedipus’ early life patched together from lots of sources, and a comic schoolboy scene taken from somewhere else. The copying is inevitable in this situation, now as then, but we are pleased that they added a bit of comedy to the thing. A school play needs some laughs in it.

Some amazing stagecraft is required: at one point the Sphinx fights off a soldier with fire shooting from her tail, later she throws herself off a rock and breaks her neck on the stage, then there is a vanishing ghost, and a spirit coming down out of the clouds. Wow!! The more of this the better (although it’s by no means certain whether they actually managed to perform all that back then).

School shows are sometimes criticised for being as much about publicity for the school as about education, and Oedipus is proof that things have been that way for at least 400 years. The evening began with a speech praising the founders of the school for their support, and ended with a prayer for the town council and the mayor.

Coyote Girl - a play in the Cambridge Storybooks series

Coyote Girl - a play in the Cambridge Storybooks series

But despite all that and all the hard work that goes into coaching students for a school show we believe they are a lot of fun, and many students get great benefit from them. Certainly they’re popular. As publisher’s reps we are often asked by teachers for sketches and plays their students can perform. We do have some plays in our Cambridge Storybooks series (such as this one Coyote Girl). These are delightful and although they don’t have 36 roles they don’t take over three hours to perform either. (Go here for information on the series).

But we’d like to leave you with a taste of the language of the Elizabethan Oedipus. This is the description of the Sphinx….
this monster head and handes hath lyke a mayd
the bodie of a dogge, wings like a foule
her nayles like lyon fierce make men affraid
and like a dragon fell her tayle doth roule

or if you prefer it in modern spelling

this monster head and hands has like a maid
the body of a dog, wings like a fowl
her nails like lion fierce make men afraid
and like a dragon fell her tail does roll

You can find a complete photographic reproduction of the manuscript, and a transcription, on the Elizabethan Club’s website:

Many thanks to Martin Wiggins and the TLS for an excellent article, on which this blog post has been based (and for sending us the link to the entire manuscript).


About The Henry Brothers

We are English teachers involved in ELT publishing in Turkey, and also touring the country giving workshops and presentations to English teachers, mainly on the use of poetry, storytelling and other lively activities in the classroom. We can be contacted by e-mail to or
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